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For Tatmadaw, Rohingyas Can Be the Key to Legitimacy

Philip Sarker. See bio at bottom.

With eyes fixated on the ongoing Afghan debacle and America’s messy withdrawal from the infamous ‘graveyard of empire’, the world might have missed a curious development from the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar.

On Aug. 27, in a press conference in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s military spokesperson Zaw Min Tun said, the country’s recent drive to curb covid-19 infection will also include vaccination of the Rohingya minority. Tun’s statement came after numerous media outlets reported, citing a local administrator, that immunization campaign in Rakhine state will exclude the Rohingyas.

It goes without saying that due to the extremely contagious nature of novel coronavirus, inoculation of Rohingyas is a must to rein the surge of infections and deaths as well as spiraling humanitarian crisis. Myanmar has recently adopted an ambitious plan to vaccinate half of its population by the end of 2021.

As of Sept. 21, the country has a vaccination rate of 15 doses administered per 100 people, the lowest among its ASEAN peers. However, what makes Zaw’s comment really stand out from the stereotypical understanding of Tatmadaw’s stance regarding ethnic groups of the country, particularly the Rohingyas is exactly how he puts it in words. Referring to Rohingyas as ‘Bengalis’, a term being used by Tatmadaw and local Buddhist extremist to describe the Muslim minority, Zaw Min Tun said, ‘[Rohingyas] are also our people as well…We will not leave anyone behind.’

While Zaw Min Tun maintains the official position of denying Rohingyas’ distinct ethnic identity, his emotionally pregnant statement does strike a chord. For decades, Rohingyas have been facing incredible hostility from local fundamentalist and political groups.

The 2017 clearance operation that drove around 700,000 Rohingyas to neighboring Bangladesh has drawn widespread criticism and harsh sanctions from the world community. Tatmadaw had to bear the brunt of global rebuke. What remained astonishingly underreported is how the Rohingya issue have been manipulated and politicized over the years by local political and other groups.

Arakan National Party (ANP) is one of those groups that has been thriving on xenophobic rhetoric and lobbying hard to disenfranchise Rohingyas since it came into being in 2014.

Myanmar Rohingya

In 2016, ANP organized massive protests as a high-level commission, set up by now-deposed leader Aung Sun Suu Kyi and led by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan was visiting Rakhine during a probe into treatment of Rohingyas.

In August 2017, just weeks before the eruption of violence targeting the Rohingyas, an ANP delegation met Myanmar military’s commander-in-chief in Naypyidaw and urged him to take quick security measure and segregate Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State’s Maungdaw Township.

It goes without saying that such persistent push and lobby from ANP, a party whose political agenda is entirely based on purity of Rakhine blood and anti-Rohingya rhetoric, inevitably culminated in the persecution of Rohingyas in 2017.

Zaw Min Tun’s commitment to vaccinate the Rohingyas and his wording also resembles the speech delivered by Myanmar’s commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing in his speech delivered on Feb. 9. In his first televised speech following the military takeover of government, Hlaing claimed, the military rule would be different this time and promised  “We will continue receiving the displaced persons in Bangladesh in accord with the bilateral agreement.”

The political development in Myanmar since Feb. 1 has upended the dominant national discourse with regard to the Rohingya minority in Myanmar. With global recognition at stake, the National Unity Government (NUG) was quick to re-adjust its policy on Rohingyas and other ethnic minority groups.

In a bid to woo western powers and gain access to around US$1 billion in Myanmar government funds frozen in the United States, on June 3, NUG released its policy position on Rohingya issue, where it pledged to repatriate Rohingyas and ensure citizenship and fundamental rights of the persecuted minority.

The depth of such quick change of hearts of Myanmar’s NLD-affiliated politicians who formed the NUG can be questioned considering that Aung Sun Suu Kyi, whom they have put on a supreme pedestal, called the allegation of violent persecution and mistreatment as “exaggerated and misconstrued”, refused to even use the word Rohingya and even defended the 2017 clearance operation targeting the Rohingyas at the International Court of Justice.

Although the reformist zealots of NLD have seemingly got the upper hand as an aftermath of events immediately following the coup, it is very unclear how much of their inclusive policies Suu Kyi would approve.

There is no denying that the current caretaker government in Myanmar is suffering from a crisis of legitimacy. This leaves a room for Tatmadaw to rethink its position on Rohingya repatriation and other relevant issues.

First, a proactive stance on Rohingya repatriation will surely put Tatmadaw in an advantageous position in its bid for global recognition. The outcome at the 76th U.N. General Assembly where Myanmar’s seat has been deferred until November is frustrating not only for Tatmadaw, but also for the people of Myanmar.

The behind-the-curtain deal between China and the U.S. also reveals that China, an ally of Tatmadaw, would go only to a certain extent to shield and uphold the interest of its southern neighbor on global forums. The deal also had the blessings of Moscow, as some media have put it.

According to Angshuman Chowdhury, an independent Indian journalist, “Beijing has clearly chosen to prioritize its bilateral interests with Washington D.C. over its ‘special relationship’ with the Myanmar military regime.” However, one can hardly blame Beijing as Hugh Schofield of BBC News has put it while commenting on recent AUKUS fallout, there is no room for sentiment in geostrategy.

It also goes without saying that the prospect of finding any solution to Myanmar’s representation problem even in November is considerably low. However, engaging in Rohingya repatriation measures with neighboring Bangladesh and also sympathizing and adopting concrete measures to exacerbate Rohingya plight can also create scope for a much suitable outcome in future negotiation.

Secondly, reviving stalled Rohingya repatriation talks will also help Myanmar government to continue its traditional foreign policy approach that opts for engaging with all and maintaining balanced relations with all key players in global arena.

The political incidents since February have narrowed Naypyidaw’s foreign policy options and created an extensive dependence on Beijing and Moscow. New Delhi, while maintaining its position of strategic neutrality, is also unlikely to offer a whole-hearted open embrace, at least the foreseeable future.

The Rohingya issue can be a gateway for Myanmar to engage and improve bi-lateral ties with its eastern neighbor Bangladesh. Such engagement is also likely to earn blessings from influential members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Naypyidaw’s pro-Rohingya overtures are likely to be rewarded with robust economic and trade relations with Dhaka. Dhaka can become the interlocutor for Naypyidaw in the Islamic world and lend a hand to its Southeast Asian neighbor to secure investment and aids to salvage the failing economy.

Thirdly, the increasing influence of the Arakan Army in Rakhine poses a significant threat to Naypyidaw’s control in the war-ravaged state. In recent months, the rebel group has established its own administrative and judiciary mechanisms and reportedly decided to include Muslims in the local administrative bodies.

Arakan Army’s recent activities constitute a credible threat for Naypyidaw which is evident from the fact that on Sept. 10, a local commander of Myanmar military summoned Muslim village leaders of Kyauktaw Township and warned them not to submit complaints to the Arakan Army, and its political wing the United League of Arakan. It is apparent that after NUG, Arakan Army is now also exploiting Rohingya issue for political benefits and legitimacy purposes. Such development calls for a shift of position of Tatmadaw on Rohingya issue.

If the embarrassing withdrawal of U.S. troops, and broadly the legacy of “war on terror” teaches us anything, it is that one-size-fits-all have not and will not ever work.

Exporting American democracy, i.e., toppling tyrants and latching loyalists in their places, did not bring any result to dismantle terrorism, rather it paved the way for more violent forms of extremism, to such an extent that these days Al-Qaeda appears to be a ‘more moderate and pragmatic’ terrorist outfit to Western scholars.

The West’s understanding of Myanmar is also prone to such mindless generalization that barely takes into consideration the country’s inner nuances and its unique course of nation-building. The truth, no matter how unsettling it may seem to some, is that Tatmadaw is the only institute in Myanmar that can ensure permanent peace and reconciliation when it comes to the lingering Rohingya issue, even if there is a democratically elected government in place.

And now, to put itself one step ahead of its adversaries in hunt for global legitimacy, the Tatmadaw should utilize the advantageous position it enjoys in Myanmar by reviving the stalled repatriation talks and kickstarting a series of major reforms to ensure sustainable solution of the crisis.  

Philip Sarker is a senior sub-editor at Shining Bangladesh, a Dhaka-based online news portal. He completed his graduation and post-graduation on International Relations from the University of Dhaka. His research interest is focused on Southeast Asian ethnopolitics, particularly Rohingya affairs. He also frequently writes on political economy and regional connectivity issues. He can be reached at philipsarker@protonmail.com